Editors note: This is part eight of an eight-part series exploring the eight Jesus questions all of us must face, highlighted in Jim Wallis's new book Christ in Crisis: Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus (HarperOne), available now. These next eight weeks will help us go deeper than the headlines, to find our way back to Jesus in the midst of this intensive and exhausting news cycle.
Want to hear this in an audio format instead? We just launched an eight-episode podcast series called Reclaiming Jesus Now that features Allison Trowbridge and William Matthews speaking with Jim Wallis about these questions and their relevance today.
What does discipleship look like?
I was in Tuscon, Ariz., this week for the final day of the trial of Scott Warren, a volunteer who helps migrants in the desert. He was charged with a felony for “harboring” and assisting “illegal aliens” with a potential sentence of 10 years in prison. I gave a statement outside the Tucson courthouse and then joined a group of clergy flooding the courtroom wearing our vestments as the closing arguments were presented and the jury was sent out to make their decision. Outside the legal proceedings, I testified from the text of Matthew 25. I can summarize it like this:
Migrant people and families in the Sonoran Desert are hungry, thirsty, naked, strangers, sick, and facing arrest.
The Gospel text from Matthew 25 says that Jesus is with all of those, and how we treat them, “the least of these,” is how we treat him.
Therefore, following Jesus is on trial today in Tucson.
Jesus tells his followers to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, give medical care to those who need it, and visit with those who are or may be incarcerated — even if they are in the desert and despite their legal status.
Therefore, Jesus is also on trial today in Tucson, Arizona.
The prosecution accused the defendant of having the “intent” to break the law. The defense said the motivation of Warren, like all humanitarian workers, was to prevent “death and suffering.”
After 2-and-a-half hours, the jury of 16 local citizens returned with a unanimous verdict of “not guilty,” and defendant Scott Warren was acquitted after being charged and put on trial twice now for the same “crimes.” As his organization, No More Deaths, put it after the decision, “Yet again, No More Deaths has withstood the government’s attempts to criminalize basic human compassion.”
Throughout this special eight-week series, we have been having this conversation together about how Christians have become disconnected from Jesus and how we need to reconnect to him and his teachings. We’ve talked about loving our neighbor, speaking the truth, seeing all human beings as bearers of the image of God, being a servant leader, not living in the spirit of fear, discerning when obeying God can mean disobeying Caesar, and resolving conflicts as peacemakers. But in the end, there is one final test of discipleship for anyone who claims to follow Jesus.
As Allison Trowbridge put it in our conversation for this week’s episode of the Reclaiming Jesus Now podcast on “The Discipleship Question:”
In Matthew 25, Jesus says, whatever you did for the least of these you did for me. The crux of what he's saying is this, do you see me in them? Some have called it a final exam for anyone so bold as to call themselves a disciple. So how are we measuring up?
Matthew 25 was my conversion text. Having been kicked out of my church as a teenage kid over issues of racism and war, I found my home in the student movements of my time. In those movements, I decided that I wanted to live my life trying to change the world. That vocation of being an activist was what I wanted to do, but I didn't feel I had an adequate foundation. What would be the basis for living my life in this way? How would I undergird it? Like a lot of my friends, I read famous works from a wide variety of historical figures, many of them quite radical. But I wasn't finally satisfied with the foundation provided by the likes of Karl Marx, Ho Chi Minh, and Che Guevara. Despite having left my home church, I don't think I ever got quite shed of Jesus.
I decided to go back and study Jesus. I went back to the New Testament, and I first found the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus laid out his new order that turned society and the world upside down. This is what Jesus said we're supposed to do as his disciples. And I had never heard a sermon on that text before — at least never one with the radical implications for changing the world that were right there in the text. But then I got to Matthew 25:31-46. It was the most radical thing I'd ever read, more so than any of the radical leftist thinkers I had been reading.
This is the "it was me" text. Jesus is really telling us in this text, “I was hungry and you fed me or not. I was thirsty, and you gave me a cup of water or not. I was a stranger” — that word means immigrant, refugee — "you welcomed me or you didn't. I was naked, stripped of everything I had. And you began to restore that back to me or you didn't. I was sick and you didn't visit me, or you did, or you cared about my health care, or you didn't. I was a prisoner, and you didn't come to see me or ask whether the system that put me in prison was a just system. It was me.”
An important thing to remember about this story is that all the people who are being judged think they are Jesus' followers. They all thought they belonged to him and they say, "when did we see you hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, a stranger in prison? We didn't know it was you!” And I often like to add that if this story happened in the present day, they’d add, “Had we known it was you, we would have at least formed a social action committee." The way Jesus responds to them couldn’t be clearer. He tells them, "How you treat those who are the least of these,” meaning the marginal, the put aside, the shutout, the ignored, the neglected — "that's how you treat me. So I'll know how much you love me by how you treat them.”
This is the final test. This was Jesus’ last teaching before he went into Jerusalem to be crucified and raised from the dead. This is how we measure our lives as disciples. And while Jesus was not very judgmental as a whole during his ministry, he was in this text. The sheep go to eternal reward, and the goats, who didn’t treat the vulnerable the way they would treat Jesus, literally go to eternal damnation.
This text changed my life, the direction of my life. My view of the world has always been changed by being where I wasn't supposed to be with people I was never supposed to meet or know, and that's where you learn how the world really is. From God's point of view, the world is not best understood from the top down, but from the bottom up. The reality of the world is best seen always from those who are on the margins of society — that’s who sees the world as Jesus did. So all the Christians who raised me and talked about Jesus all the time were pushing away the very people Jesus is talking about here. And they didn't know they were pushing away Christ himself. Tragically, they really didn't know Jesus, even though they spoke his name all the time.
Jesus’ command to treat the most vulnerable the way we would treat him feels more relevant than ever in our current political era. Entire groups of people — including immigrants, people of color, Muslims, LGBTQ people, and many others — are justifiably worried. All the people being scapegoated and politically targeted by this administration and its allies and supporters are in many cases the very ones Jesus specifically calls on us to protect in Matthew 25.
And yet, there is reason for hope, because times like these that cut to the core of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, have the capacity to bring us back to Christ and bring out the best in the church. As William Matthews put it in this week’s podcast conversation:
As you see these government bodies trying to otherize and weaponize hate and racism and white supremacy against lots of these people, you're also seeing advocacy rise up … when you call out the demonization, it's very hard for the scapegoating to take place because it's revealed and it’s seen for what it is. That's how Jesus unmasked the powers and principalities through his sacrifice… the church as a mediator and an intercessor gets to stand in that place of interrupting the powers and the principalities and [say], “no, no, you can't do that … you can't scapegoat those people. You can't demonize them. We're not gonna’ let you other them. We're going to expose it with light and love and we're going to be a refuge and a sanctuary …
There is, of course, a danger whenever people who are privileged and not on the margins of society seek to help those who are. To authentically do so must mean standing alongside or under the leadership of those directly affected. For example, white Christians and white pastors who seek to be anti-racist should be standing with and alongside and under black leadership. Sometimes progressive white folks want to get involved but can fall back into the habit of privilege: to want control. Consciously or unconsciously, they often say or think, “I can fix this. I can use my influence to fix this.” But when people stand alongside each other, with white pastors looking for leadership from black pastors, a whole different movement and whole different conversation begins to take place. When those with privilege stand alongside, in service and appropriate deference to, those who are most impacted by structural forces that seek to oppress and marginalize them, that helps demonstrate and create the kind of beloved community can transform the world.